What’s new, everybody? Today we’re covering This Poison Heart, the 2021 YA contemporary fantasy novel by Kalynn Bayron. If the author’s name sounds familiar, it’s because I included her debut novel, Cinderella Is Dead, in last year’s article, “My 2 Cents on Five Queer Must-Reads for Young Adults.” Having deeply enjoyed Cinderella Is Dead, I had high expectations for Bayron’s follow-up effort, and let me tell you, it did not fall short in the slightest. This Poison Heart revolves around Briseis “Bri” Greene, a Black teenager whose green thumb is useful for helping her adoptive moms Thandie and Angie (or Mom and Mo, respectively) run a Brooklyn flower shop that’s in danger of shutting down due to gentrification. Bri’s green thumb isn’t any regular old kind, though. She possesses the power to control plants, one that’s strong and instinctive enough to make them physically gravitate towards her and cause even the most wilted vegetation to thrive in her presence. As a new friend remarks upon learning her gift, which she conceals from mostly everyone except her moms, “This is unreal. But I’m with it. You’re like the Black Poison Ivy.” The simile only becomes more apt when Bri finds out early on in the story, thanks to what should have been a lethal run-in with water hemlock, that she’s immune to toxic plants. Her life only grows more complicated once she inherits a massive and derelict estate close by Rhinebeck from Circe Colchis, who just passed away and was the sister of her late birth mom Selene. Despite having never even known about her aunt, Bri moves upstate with Thandie and Angie—a relocation that leads Bri to untangle the secrets surrounding her cryptic ancestry and abilities, the apothecary and the poisonous garden that are on the grounds, and the locals who seem to have an overly vested interest in her estate and her blood relations.
Bayron has proven herself yet again with this kick-ass first half of her new duology. It was a piece of cake for me to get carried away in Bri’s resolute journey to navigate the previously unexplored depths of her floral faculties and unearth the roles that Circe and Selene played in her biological lineage. Sure, there were a couple plot holes I caught along the way, but otherwise it’s flawless. As a fan of modern mythological retellings, I was especially onboard for the elements of Greek mythology that Bayron slyly wove into the narrative, which I wasn’t anticipating at the outset. The twists that she puts on such ancient lore, along with her clear voice and her atmospheric portrayal of the environment’s lush greenery, enhances the gothic vibes that radiate from This Poison Heart. It doesn’t hurt that after Bri and her moms travel upstate, Bri flippantly comments that the town reminds her of Get Out. Jordan Peele’s directorial debut and This Poison Heart may be fairly disparate pieces of content, but the nod effectively reinforces the ominous mood festering within Bri’s new home, the unshakeable feeling that there’s a grim underbelly to dredge up. Plus, it fits with the lovably wry humor sprinkled throughout the book.
When it comes to the characters, I terribly enjoy the relationship that blossoms between Bri and Marie Morris, a fellow teenager who may or may not hold secrets of her own. In any case, she also has a car chauffeured by a driver named Nyx, so take from that what you will. Thandie and Angie are equally endearing parts of the side roster. I’ve become accustomed to the trope of parents either treating their children with varying combinations of negligence and malice or being sidelined as cardboard cutouts who are waiting to get killed off. While I can’t promise that danger never befalls Bri’s mothers, I can say this: thank God Bri has tremendously loving parents like them to back her up. The running gag of Angie’s absolute incompetence in regard to making waffles is particularly exquisite.
I’m all for This Poison Heart being steeped in Black women and casual queerness. Rather than depicting racism against the primarily Black cast or focusing on the biphobia that Bri would face in real life for her bisexuality, the story simply takes its inclusiveness for granted. While it’s important to have narratives that give realistic pictures of bigotry and hatred, especially in today’s climate, it’s also vital to present stories in which race, sexuality, neurodivergence, etc. are part of the characters without turning into a main concern and forcing them to ward off discrimination. This is what we need more of in contemporary teen fantasy to counter the cishet whiteness filling most of the subgenre.
All in all, This Poison Heart is a vividly framed and intelligently written adventure with a cliffhanger ending that ensures readers will be raring for the sequel. I know I certainly will be.
Until next time, stay healthy and stay strong!
Windup score: 90/100